By Darren Johnson
This was originally published by the Hastings Online Times here
For a town that rightly prides itself on the quality of its frenetic live music scene, the closure of pubs and entertainment venues across the country back in March hit Hastings especially hard. And while the summer has witnessed a tentative return to some sort of normality for many pubs, social distancing requirements mean it is likely to be some time yet before the sound of live bands can be heard wafting out of any of them. In recent weeks, however, live music has returned with a bang in the shape of the ‘Live and Unlocked’ sessions on Hastings Pier.
Starting in late July and continuing throughout August and September, the pier is hosting live music every Friday evening from 5pm, every Sunday lunchtime from 1pm through to 3.30pm, and occasional gigs on Saturday. John Bownas, one of the key figures behind ‘Live and Unlocked’, explains how the project started.
“As with so many things, luck played a big part in how I got involved with this project,” says John.
“I was lucky to have got the job a few years ago as manager of Love Hastings Ltd – effectively making me the town centre manager. I was then lucky to have been able to recruit Peter Rolfe as the business ambassador for the town.
“Peter has a long history of involvement with the local DJ scene, and when he found out that the Music First team were taking over the management of the pier he had the foresight to set me up with a meeting with James and Tuf – who are the brains behind the operation.
“These guys have a real passion for Hastings and their history of promoting events on the pier before the fire makes them the perfect team to breathe life into the space. It’s been amazing to watch it transform over the last few weeks from an empty stage into a thriving tourist attraction and community facility for the town.
“In chatting to them I mentioned how I had run various festival stages in the past (including the Left Field at Glastonbury) and how I currently ran the Hastings Flyer website as a local music listings resource. In turn they told me that getting a live music programme going was a big priority for them – and things just sort of developed from there.”
John explains that, initially, the team were just thinking about Friday nights but the project soon became more ambitious. “I have a habit of trying to squeeze as much out of any opportunity like this that I can,” he says. “So Friday nights quickly became late afternoons as well, as we agreed to kick off the live shows from 5pm to cater for the crowds who like to find somewhere straight after work.
“It wasn’t long before I realised that even with eight weeks worth of Friday nights there wasn’t enough time to put on all of the local acts who deserved a space – so we decided to add Sunday lunchtimes to the programme… and a few Saturdays got thrown into the mix as well.”
The live gigs have undoubtedly proved a huge success. “Everything kicked off with a Sam Calver show,” says John. “Straight away we knew we were onto a winner. Since then we’ve had two Friday nights and one Sunday gig, and the bands and crowds have absolutely loved it. I’m getting dozens of requests to perform every week and tables fill up in no time.”
In past decades, of course, Hastings Pier was a legendary venue hosting many legendary bands. Following its multi-million pound refurbishment after the 2010 fire destroyed most of the original buildings, its sleek new minimalist look was not without its detractors. However, in these current times, when social distancing is key to the viability of any live entertainment venture, the pier has proved the ideal venue.
“What has dawned on us is that the pier is a unique space right now,” explains John. “We haven’t yet found anywhere else that is able to stage regular live music to so many people. It’s quite possible we’re actually the largest live music venue in the country at the moment … or possibly in the whole of Europe. That’s a really humbling thought!
“And the important thing is that it is a safe space. Tables are well-spaced, and as long as people are sensible there are no more risks than those associated with a trip to the supermarket. What’s for certain is that this proves beyond a doubt that the pier’s future as a live music space is assured.”
For more information on forthcoming Live and Unlocked sessions on the pier visit https://hastingsflyer.com/pier/